Listen to this track featuring the first family of gospel/R&B message music, the Staple Singers. It’s “When Will We Be Paid”, a key track off of 1970’s We’ll Get Over, and later to be featured in the film Soul to Soul, a documentary and concert film shot in Ghana the next year, and featuring the Staples along with Santana, Ike & Tina Turner, Booker T. & the MGs, Wilson Pickett, and others.
The song itself is something of a civil rights anthem, a history of what black people have contributed to the course of American culture and history. They were taken from their homes in West Africa, taken to the colonies as slaves and later as cheap labour to fuel the industries of a burgeoning super-power, and yet were given no credit for that country’s success.
The performance of “When Will We Be Paid” in Ghana was something of a cultural homecoming of sorts, stylistically speaking. Yet in many ways it’s a pretty universal story of struggles against oppression and exploitation in general.
The Staples were key voices in the 60s as civil rights icons, coming out of a pure gospel tradition, and applying their Christian consciences to what was happening around them in a more direct way. But above all, they were able to translate this musically as well, taking the sound of southern soul music, and telling the stories of their audience, for their audience.
This tune, written by Randall Stewart, is certainly one of those. Lead singer Mavis Staples belts out the tale of a disenfranchised people, while father Pops, sister Cleotha, and brother Pervis back her up (along with Steve Cropper, ‘Duck’ Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr. of Booker T. & The MGs, which doesn’t hurt). Sadly, singing this for an American audience is only one level of meaning to this tune.
Transplanted back in Africa for the Soul to Soul film, the song takes on yet another meaning, removed from its original context and into a global one, where whole countries are disenfranchised economically, and culturally besides. In Ghana, and for the film, this meant freedom from British rule, which is the occasion of this concert. But, the song could have been performed in any cultural context, and still speak to an audience under the thumb of some dominant regime, group, or interest.
There is an argument that this is not just a protest song, or a message song in this respect, but rather an anthem to the reparations movement. Whether it is or not can’t be dealt with adequately here. But, for me, this song is more meaningful in this wider context, of humanity’s propensity to enslave and exploit, and about the equal propensity to determine one’s own destiny and independence, and fight against this kind of oppression.
In this context, this song becomes much bigger than a single cry in aid of a specific political agenda or cause. It becomes the sound of the voice of anyone who is oppressed, hidden from daylight, and hungry for justice. Of course, it becomes something timeless as well, with just as much exploitation and suffering continuing today.
Mavis Staples is a soul powerhouse, still recording and touring today. Check out MavisStaples.com